You’d be forgiven for doing a double-take when looking through entry list for the UCI MTB Marathon World Championships in Italy this weekend. Nino Schurter, Lars Forster, Filippo Colombo, Rebecca McConnell, Mona Mitterwallner and Barbara Benko all feature. Are they optimistic or do they really have a shot at podium success against the marathon specialists like South Africa’s Robyn de Groot and former Absa Cape Epic winners Kristian Hynek, Jaroslav Kulhavy and Urs Huber?

By Sean Badenhorst

First of all, it’s not unheard of for an XCO star to win the XCM World Championships. It’s more likely among the women though, with Jolanda Neff (2016) and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (2019) the most prominent examples in recent years. In the men, Henrique Avancini won the XCM title in 2018, the only exception since Jaroslav Kulhavy (2014) and Christoph Sauser (2013) won it during their autumns of their XCO-racing careers.

Robyn de Groot, in action here during the 2021 Swiss Epic, will be looking to challenge for a medal in the women’s race. | Photo: Swiss Epic

If you’re fast, you’re fast. And XCO racers are undoubtedly fast! But the XCM World Champs generally just lasts a lot longer than a typical 80-minute international XCO race, which is usually where the XCO racers struggle. The duration can be their undoing, especially if they’ve not done a high volume of long-distance training rides in the build-up.

But a very disrupted 2020 and a partially disrupted 2021 have seen most mountain bike racers hankering for more races, which is probably why there’s a big XCO contingent on the island of Elba for the 2021 edition. The course could also be the reason.

It’s a lap format with the women doing two laps for a total distance of 80km and 3100 metres of ascent; and the men doing three laps to cover 115km with 4500m of ascent. That’s a lot of steep climbing! It’s also a lot of steep descending, two areas XCO racers are very familiar with.

“It’s a big mix ‘shorter’, steep climbs done many times over. It’s also mostly on mountain biking terrain, so not a much ‘easier surface’ to climb on. There’s definitely a bit of an XCO feel in some sections too,” explained De Groot, South Africa’s women’s bronze medallist in 2019.

Australian champion, Rebecca McConnell is one of the XCO racing stars seeking XCM World Championship success. | Photo: Chris Cassal

“It’s dry, loose, rocky and dusty – very much like we have in South Africa. The XCO racers will make it hard to judge the right pacing, but that’s sure to make in an interesting and exciting race,” added De Groot.

A total of 173 riders from 32 countries will be competing. De Groot was a frustrating fourth at the 2020 edition, which was held in Turkey and which proved a challenge just to get to, never mind complete, with all the Covid-19-related restrictions and confusion in play a year ago. She’s been based in Europe for the past two months, so has had the benefit of a more stable period of preparation. A medal certainly isn’t out of the question for De Groot.

“I’m confident that once I start the race, things will come together and I’ll be able to read the race and pace myself well – and keep pushing through. This course will be about attrition and grit for sure!” she said on Thursday.

All three medallists from last year are on the start list and they are: gold medallist, Ramona Forchini (SUI), silver medallist Maja Wloszczowska (POL) and bronze medallist, Ariane Luthi, who won the 2021 Swiss Marathon title last weekend. Also, a name known to South Africans on the start list is the Swedish champion Stellenbosch resident, Jennie Stenerhag.

Of the XCO stars lining up, Australian Rebecca McConnell is the rider most will be familiar with. She’s finished on a few XCO World Cup podiums this year and is third on the current UCI rankings. Barbara Benko is the Polish champion, but has had poor year by her standards and will be eager to rescue it with a World Championship medal.

Mona Mittenwallner is the 19-year-old Austrian who has dominated the Under-23 category in her first year, winning all six UCI World Cups and the World Champs. She’s ranked 10 in the world and it will be interesting to see how she fares over a distance that’s usually better managed by riders outside their teens.

Current XCO World Champion, Nino Schurter, will be giving the XCM World Championships his first bash. | Photo: SCOTT Sram Racing

De Groot is the standout South African in the squad but she’s joined by Sarah Hill, Theresa Ralph and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio. It’s unusual to see Moolman Pasio on a national mountain bike team and it will be interesting to see how one of the world’s top road racers – and the current eSport World Champion, fares. She’s got the stamina, but will she manage the technical nature of the course with the same composure she climbs with?

There’s a five-man South African men’s team comprising Gert Heyns, Matthys Beukes, Robert Hobson, Kabelo Tshkudu and Tlotlo Selala. Hobson has been based in Europe and has been contesting some of the major marathons there in recent months, while the rest will be facing their first international competition this year. A top 15 finish is probably what we can expect at best from our men.

The men’s race start list is loaded with big names. Schurter and Forster are the reigning Absa Cape Epic champions (still) after winning the 2019 edition, so their longer distance credibility is firm. But whether they have the stamina to go hard for the full distance after coming out of a demanding XCO season that included an Olympic Games, will remain to be seen.

Curiously, their compatriot Lukas Fluckiger goes into this race as one of the favourites. Brother of the 2021 XCO World Cup Series champion, Mathias, Lukas won the Swiss Marathon Championship title last weekend and, with Nicola Rohrbach, won three stages and the overall title at the 2021 Swiss Epic in mid-August.

Two-time World Champion, Leo Paez of Columbia is one of the favourites to secure the win on Saturday if his hand injury doesn’t hamper him. | Photo: Polimedical

Also on the start list and not to be discounted as possible medallists are former XCM World Champions, Greece’s Ilias Periklis (2012), Austria’s Alban Lakata (2010, 2015 and 2017), Czech Republic’s Jaroslav Kulhavy (2014) and Portugal’s Tiago Ferreira (2016).

And then there’s Switzerland’s Urs Huber and Andri Frischknecht, Germany’s Simon Stiebjahn and Martin Frey, Russia’s Alexey Medvedev, Italy’s Fabian Rabensteiner and Samuele Porro, Czech Republic’s Kristian Hynek and Martin Stosek and Estonia’s Peeter Pruus, all of whom have achieved various forms of marathon racing success in the past few years.

The firm favourite must be Colombia’s Leonard Paez. He managed to elevate himself from a three-time bronze medallist to winner in 2019 and 2020. At 39, Paez is one of the oldest riders on the start list, but he’s a superb climber and will definitely not be a pushover as he attempts to become the first male to ever win the XCM World Champs title three times in succession. Unfortunately, a fall while training earlier this week left him with an injured left hand and that could well mean his historic quest will be hampered.

The men start at 08h45 and the women start at 08h55 on Saturday 2 October.

Note: We’re not sure if it’s being shown live anywhere. We did watch the 2020 World Championships live via the UCI Mountain Bike Facebook page. We’ll try get confirmation.